By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's approval rating has dropped to its lowest level of the year in the first opinion poll published since his ruling party suffered an election setback and he faced the biggest protests of his 12-year rule.
A poll conducted on December 10-11 and released Friday showed 51 percent of Russians approved of how he has done his job, down from 61 percent in a November 28-29 survey and 68 percent in January, state pollster VTsIOM said.
The poll highlighted discontent and fatigue with the 59-year-old leader as he prepares for a presidential election in March which he is widely expected to win, but not as easily as seemed likely a month ago and perhaps not in the first round.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, suggested the decline was the result of "emotional overload" among Russians following the election and said his approval rating would swiftly recover.
"On the whole Vladimir Putin's rating remains on quite a high level, while there are fluctuations," Interfax news agency quoted Peskov as saying.
"These days are characterized by an emotional overload linked to the post-election period. But the real state of affairs indicates there are grounds to expect an increase in the premier's rating in the very near future."
Tens of thousands of people protested last Saturday to call for the rerun of the December 4 parliamentary election which opponents say was rigged to benefit the ruling United Russia party. Many protesters also said they were fed up with Putin.
Political analysts say Putin angered many Russians when he revealed a plan to switch jobs next year with President Dmitry Medvedev, the protege he steered into the Kremlin when he was barred from seeking a third term after his 2000-2008 presidency.
The decision, revealed at a September congress of United Russia, deepened feelings of disenfranchisement among Russians who believe they have no influence in a political system dominated by Putin and his party.
FIRST-ROUND VICTORY IN DOUBT?
Voters sharply reduced United Russia's parliamentary majority on December 4 but opponents say that even the party's return of 49.3 percent was inflated by fraud. International monitors also said the vote was slanted to favor United Russia.
In a marathon question-and-answer session televised live nationwide Thursday, Putin said he believed the results were in line with public opinion and made clear he would not bow to protesters' demands for a new election.
Speaking to reporters after Thursday's call-in show, Putin said the plan to make Medvedev prime minister after the presidential vote remained in place, and call United Russia's result a clear victory despite the diminished majority.
Putin had charged Medvedev with leading United Russia into the election and hinted a poor performance might make him turn to someone else to head the government if he is elected president.
The VTsIOM poll put Putin far ahead of the pack in the presidential election, with 42 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Putin. Next was Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, will 11 percent.
The poll provided no clear answer to what is shaping up as the main question about the presidential vote: Can Putin win more than 50 percent of the votes, securing victory in the first round and avoiding a run-off against the closest competitor.
While fewer than half the Russians surveyed said they would vote for Putin, some of the politicians offered as choices are not running for president, 11 percent said they would not vote and 15 percent were undecided.
Medvedev's approval rating also fell sharply in the VTsIOM poll, to 51 percent on December 10-11 from 60 percent on November 28-29 and 66 percent in January.
VTsIOM, which surveyed 1,600 people in 138 locations nationwide, and said the poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.